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Should Christians Fight for Reform to Secure Competent and Honest Government?

March 1, 2017

Draft

Christians speak out on a number of public issues such as inequality and the treatment of refugees. In so doing they are implicitly criticising government policy, although without naming names. They seem very shy however of commenting on the behaviour of those who make our laws. I argue that they should. Laws should be based on some sense of Justice and if our politicians lack that sense then we are in trouble; laws are likely to favour the powerful and oppress the rest of us.

99% of humanity recognises most of the Christians’ moral code (Note 1). in that we all know how we ought to behave although we dismally fail to do so. In spite of our failures it enables us to function most of the time as a harmonious society. Britain is nominally at least a democracy. This means there has to be a meaningly dialogue between our representatives and the rest of us. Without a common sense of morality that would surely be impossible.

In 2007 the journalist and commentator Peter Oborne documented the hollowing out of our democracy since the early 1980s (Note 2). Prior to then, the various institutions making up the old establishment were respected, thus providing valuable checks and balances. The new political class that has emerged from the wreckage has arrogantly asserted that they are morally superior to the rest of us – a judgement that few outside the ‘Westminster Bubble’ agree with. I see no indication that the Cameron governments did anything to reverse this process.

The Brexit vote has revealed deep divisions in society. Following the vote there has been a marked increase in the reported incidents of hate and violence. But it was not the referendum and the vote that caused the divisions. Britain has been deeply divided along economic, educational, social and geographical lines. A study published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that those who feel marginalised were most likely to vote for Brexit. (Note 3).

But why did the marginalised vote for something that is as likely to harm them as to benefit them; why take such a colossal risk? Some will have believed the line that immigration is the main problem and that only Brexir can address it. Others though have lost trust in an elite that has failed to look after them and tries to conceal the fact. The elite wanted us to remain in Europe so the marginalised voted for Brexit. Mrs May’s government has chosen to respect the vote without questions, and in consequence seems unassailable. The opposition is disunited, and so the Conservatives are able to implement policies that harm the majority. If, as the Brexit process goes forward, it becomes clear that most people will suffer significantly, then people will listen to demogogues, and we are likely to land with an inevitably inefficient populist dictatorship. The Brexit vote together with the Trump victory suggests that democracy will only flourish if politicians are more honest and acknowledge their mistakes.

I believe that most people going into politics start with high ideals. The trouble is that they face strong incentives always to vote the way the party wishes, no doubt justifying it to themselves by the thought that unless their party gains or retains power then they cannot implement any of their programme. They tend to believe that their party is right and that the main thing is to overcome the opposition in order to implement their policies. As Green MP Caroline Lucas noted when she first entered Parliament, many MPs when responding to the division bell, will not only not have heard the argument for and against the motion but may be unaware of what motion they are voting on. Some need to be physically pushed by the whips into the right lobby. Much debate in parliament thereby loses much of its point. The fine detail of parliamentary Bills is discussed in Public Bill committees which considers amendments. It is very rare for any amendment not supported by the government gets through. Select committees, which typically scrutinise the performance of government departments, produce some good reports but they rarely influence government policy. For the leadership, distracted as they are by lobbyists and party funders, gaining and retaining power becomes the goal rather than the means. Sound bytes, generated by ‘triangulation’ (Note 4) replace coherent and principled statements of policy.

If an individual seeks power for its own sake it is a sign of self conceit, which to a Christian is the worst of the sins. Self conceit has unfortunate social consequences in that the individual will think of him or her self as infallible, which is never the case. Also self conceit is competitive by its very nature and will attract enemies. A little humility would surely improve the quality of government.

Many successful business men realise they are subject to the discipline of the market, and accept that they may have to abandon cherished beliefs and listen to advice. Under our current system, politicians do not face such clear discipline and are therefore subject to much greater temptation to succumb to Pride.

If we could reduce the temptation for politicians to behave badly we could expect better government, but how do we do this? One way is to change the voting system for the House of Commons. Currently the First Past the Post (FPTP) system is used. FPTP is usually criticised as being unfair to voters in that it is not proportional; many votes are simply wasted; and many voters feel they have to vote tactically (Note 5). Any proportional system would address these failings, and most campaigners are open minded about what system is chosen.

But I have a second objection to FPTP. It encourages MPs to behave badly. Firstly under FPTP most constituencies are ‘safe’ seats. Politicians have worked out that they only have to worry about swing voters in marginal constituencies. Using a technique known as ‘triangulation’, instead of promoting their full manifesto they focus on the narrow range of concerns raised by these key voters. Although effective, this is fundamentally dishonest. Any proportional system would make this much less effective. However any system based primarily on voting for a party rather than an individual generates excessive party loyalty, which prevents MPs identifying flaws in government policy, and allows ministers to yield to the influence of lobbyists or party funders rather than the grass roots. This leads me to support a particular system known as Single Transferable Vote (Note 6). Basically voters should be able to choose not just which party to support, but also which candidates of that party should be elected. This means that MPs loyalties would be more to their constituents and less to the party.

Other proposals for reform have been put forward but I find them less convincing (Note 7).

I have argued that the case for reform is essentially a moral argument. You do not have to be a Christian or indeed to follow any organised religion, to accept these arguments. I believe that Christians should nevertheless engage with this issue for the following reasons:

  • I am not asking them to criticise particular persons or parties, but instead to argue for incentives for all politicians to behave better.

  • Arguably Christians should be paying more attention to moral issues than non Christians

  • Far too few people currently think about how parliament and government should work. Many of those who do have strong party loyalties which I feel gets in the way. Christians could show a lead by lending some moral authority to the debate.

  • Someone needs to challenge the arrogant assumption by the majority of MPs that only they should determine how they are elected.

Many people criticise MPs for their expense claims and for in other ways using their office for personal benefit. However there are worse sins than that. The habitual mendacity of members of governments of either stripe, condoned by lazy and compliant media, does much to distort the democratic process. Furthermore their self conceit, leading as it does to serious mistakes and the quest for power for its own sake, leads to bad government. Reforms are needed to reduce temptation.

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Notes:

Note 1: excepting the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity (or Christian love), which Christians claim for themselves and are bestowed on humans during baptism.

Note 2: Peter Oborne, ‘The Triumph of the Political Class, Simon and Schuster, 2007

Note 3: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/brexit-vote-explained-poverty-low-skills-and-lack-opportunities

Note 4: Triangulation: a technique first used in the campaign to elect George W Bush in 2004. but then copied by Conservative and Labour in 2005. ‘Swing’ voters in marginal constituencies are identified, their particular concerns are identified and used to create ‘sound bytes’ as the main means of mass communication. A lively account of this is given in Chapter 14 of Peter Oborne’s book ‘The Triumph of the Poltical Class’ , published in 2007.

Note 5: Commonly identified defects in First Past the Post: see http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/first-past-the-post . An excellent account by retired bishop Colin Buchanan entitled ‘ An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform: A Christian Approach’, is published by Grove Books www.grovebooks.co.uk 2015

Note 6: Single Transferable Vote (STV): see http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/single-transferable-vote, A site devoted to STV is https://stvact.wordpress.com/

Note 7: Other remedies: In 2009 a local GP, Sarah Wollaston was selected as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Totnes by open primary. That is to say that the local Conservative Association put forward a short list of possible candidates which all registered voters could vote for regardless of party. This was Cameron’s idea which has not subsequently been repeated. Sarah was elected and has been a conscientious back bencher and was subsequently made Chair of the Health select committee which has criticised the government on its less than candid statements about NHS funding. She had hoped to have had more access to ministers to advise them of problems with policy. She has suggested an extension of open primaries, but that is unlikely to happen. Parties would not see it to be in their interest and it would not be practical to try to force them to do it. She has also made suggestions about the ‘payroll vote’ see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/feb/10/creeping-patronage-house-commons-mps-whips

The Campaign for a Free Parliament (CFP) http://freeparliament.org.uk/ , which has been endorsed by Lord (Digby) Jones: The idea is to select independent candidates by open primary and aim to achieve a majority of such in parliament. In the Copeland by election their candidate got just 2.6% of the vote and it was not clear that he had been selected by open primary. Apart from that I believe parties are necessary in order to present competing visions of how the country should be run.

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